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Cardinals Elect a New Pope from Argentina -- Does the New Pontiff Come with a Dark Past?

The new pope is the first Latin American ever to grace the papal throne.

Photo Credit: AFP


This article has been corrected and updated.

The 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals moved with great alacrity to send a signal that they meant to shake up the church. With the election, in a speedy, two-day conclave, of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, they've done just that, at least for the sake of appearances, electing the first South American ever to grace the papal throne. In fact, he's the first pope since 741 A.D.* not to come from a European country.

But it doesn't end there. Unlike past popes, Bergoglio hails from the Jesuit order of priests, regarded as the intellectual backbone of the church's academic instititutions, and known as rebellious despite its members' vow of obedience to the pope. And Bergoglio has chosen a name never before used by a pope: Francis. While we don't yet know his reasons for choosing that name, it calls to mind the beloved Francis of Assisi, whose mission to the poor, and reverence for animals renders him an honored figure even to those outside of the Catholic faith.

Yet, despite his Latin American origins, the election of Bergoglio does not break the tradition of the papal chair as a white man's throne; the new pope's parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina.

It's no secret that the Vatican likes its mystery and drama, a fact brought home as watchers of the Roman Catholic Church awaited the big reveal of the new pope, as white smoke is spilled out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The smoke is the signal sent by cardinals assembled inside the chapel that they have chosen a man to lead the world's largest Christian denomination.

After making the media, as well as the faithful assembled in St. Peter's Square, wait for 40 minutes, the hordes are given what they crave: the appearance of the new pope on the balcony of the famous basilica. 

Looking for a Savior

It was apt, perhaps, that the princes of the church should choose to elect their new boss on the very day that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $10 million to four victims of a priest who abused them as children, another chapter in the church's worldwide child sexual abuse scandal. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papal throne in 2005, hopes were high that the former Vatican enforcer would crack down on the many archbishops, like L.A.'s Cardinal Roger Mahony, who moved abusive priests from parish to parish without reporting their crimes to authorities.

Instead, the man who became Pope Benedict turned a blind eye as the scandal continued to unfold. 

And then there was the VatiLeaks scandal, in which the pope's butler was charged with leaking the pope's private correspondence to an Italian journalist, who revealed a curia (akin to a presidential administration) riven with internecine battles and backbiting, as well as corruption at the Vatican Bank.

Meanwhile, Benedict had his henchmen crack down on U.S. nuns for their ostensibly "radical feminism." The fact that those nuns are champions of the poor was not lost on American Catholics, throngs of whom supported the sisters with street demonstrations last year.

American Catholics also favor the ordination of women, and see their church as "out of touch," according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

So when Benedict announced his nearly unprecendented abdication, many in the church breathed a sigh of relief, fingers crossed that the conclave of 2013 would yield a pontiff who could bring the church back into the good graces of the world. 

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